Women’s College Volleyball Elevates: New Winners, New Players, and New Heights (Literally!)

The National Collegiate Athletics Association held their annual Division 1 College Volleyball Championship this year, and the play-out was extraordinary, with thrilling matches all around, and Wisconsin winning their first-ever Championship in the history of their program. Young players provide hope that the sport will continue to become increasingly impressive in future years.


©Jamie Schwaberow / NCAA Photos

The Nebraska Cornhuskers celebrate dramatically, falling to the ground and exclaiming in glee, after defeating Pittsburgh to advance to the NCAA Finals.

Nail-biting, toe-tapping spectators froze in the stands of the Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio. Wisconsin and Nebraska stood at match point in the NCAA Women’s Division 1 Volleyball Championship. Tables had turned back and forth throughout the five set match, and it was time for a victor to emerge. The vast gymnasium held thousands of spectators, who immediately fell silent upon the cut of the whistle through the crowd; the electric bounce of the ball at the service line had viewers in a trance. 

Kenzie Knuckles, a defensive specialist for Nebraska, stood at the service line. She caught the ball out of its last bounce and raised her elbow back to serve, her expression hard and focused. With a deep breath and then two steps, and a hop – Pop! – the rally began.

The ball floated swiftly across the net to the middle of Wisconsin’s back row. Julia Orzol passed it up to the team’s setter, Sydney Hilley, who swooped onto the ten foot line with an elegant jump to push a set to the outside. Grace Loberg, on the outside, bounded to Hilley’s set and swung, driving the ball just a step in front of Knuckles on defense. With clasped arms, Knuckles extended herself an inch forward, just enough to make contact with the ball and shank it to her right – but it looked like it was leaving the court… would it? No! Nebraska’s rightside, Lindsay Krause, looped it back into the center of her court with a swing of her platform, as Nebraska’s crowd exhaled. Setter Nicklin Hames hand-passed it back across the net to Wisconsin’s shallow right-back court zone.  

On Wisconsin’s side, outside hitter Jade Demps creeped up to hand-pass the ball back to Hilley, who squared her hips and sent another fast set to Loberg. Bounding in, Loberg ripped one through the seam of the block, where Nebraska’s libero (a defensive player in a separately colored jersey who plays backrow for hitters), Keonilei Akana, reacted with a swift falling lunge to her right as she dug the hit up to the center of her court. She slid on the ground as Hames cautiously bump-set the ball to Madi Kubik on the outside. Kubik approached and sent a paced roll-shot over the block, down the line. The ball nipped the block, catching Demps off guard in right-back, who had fallen to her knees in preparation of the tip. She shot her hands up, deflecting the ball backwards and to her left, a waffled pass – it looked like Wisconsin might lose the point! But libero Lauren Barnes was poised behind her, and haphazardly set the ball to Loberg – again. Loberg approached and swung – into the block – but Barnes was there to cover. Her arms had bumped the ball back up from its way down, just a foot above the slick floor. Sydney Hill found the pass and set the monstrous six-foot-eight Dana Retke on the slide (a paced back-set for the middle hitter), and Retke produced a fast-paced swing to the line. Few defenders could touch that ball – it looked like Wisconsin might have done it – but no! Knuckles launched her body to her left, flying, digging the ball in midair! The crowd went wild! Nebraska was not backing down.

Hames, the setter on Nebraska, ran to the high pass and set Kubik again for another swing. Kubrick sent a controlled roll shot once more, this time across to Grace Loberg, who shot the ball up tight to the net with open hands. 

Hilley took staggered steps to the short pass, loading to jump and set in the ball in midair. She nearly touched the net as she reached for the tight pass. Kubrick, right across the net, thought Hilley was going to dump (tip the ball over as a setter). Kubrick jumped as Hilley set the ball in that anticipation – meaning the back-set was wide open. Seeing Kubrick abandon the back-set option in her peripheral, Hilley dished a slide set back again to Retke. As Retke bounded through her slide approach, she saw an open net.


Retke pounded the ball down! It bounced a foot in front of Nebraska’s libero, striking the ground like lightning. The arena erupted. The ball was down. Wisconsin had done it. The first NCAA Volleyball Championship in Badger history! And with Dana Retke’s name on it! The bench flooded onto the court, embracing their teammates in glee.

After battling through an incredible tournament, the Wisconsin Badgers celebrate their first-ever championship after beating the Nebraska Cornhuskers, by flaunting their new gear in a team photo. (©Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos)

What a show for this year’s Championship. Over 1.4 million people tuned in on ESPN to watch the highly anticipated match. “This game was a matchup between two Big 10 teams – arguably the most competitive division in NCAA Division Volleyball,” explained Grace Lorch ’22, former starting setter of the Bronx Science Girls Varsity Volleyball team. 

The annual NCAA Division 1 Volleyball Tournament started out, as always, with 32 teams, who began first round face-offs at the beginning of December 2021. Some notable teams that made it into the tournament this year, including the top four seeds – in order: Louisville Cardinals, Texas Longhorns, Pittsburgh Panthers, and Wisconsin Badgers – were the defending NCAA Champion Kentucky Wildcats (7th seed) and the underdog Nebraska Huskers (10th seed.)

Most Round 1 matches were won swiftly in three, sometimes four sets – excluding three marquee matchups. Despite their early nature, these games were high in skill and intensity. Ball State v. Michigan was astoundingly athletic and competitive; the teams alternated wins per set, and each produced astounding blocks and cross-court swings from their middles and outsides. Texas Tech v. FGCU was a comeback-of-the-century type match, with Texas Tech demolishing FGCU in the first two sets, only to have FGCU storm back and reverse the tide, taking the third set 25-23, and from then on pounding Texas Tech’s score lower and lower: 25-15 in set four and 15-7 in set five. Hawaii v. Mississippi State was less ecstatic, which undermined excitement and intensity. The teams alternated wins each set, but Hawaii’s superior passing secured them the win. Without precise passes, setters cannot set with variety and strategy – such issues plagued  Mississippi. Otherwise in Round 1, all top seeds advanced to the second round.

Most round 2 matches went swiftly as well, but the competition did start to heat up. Kansas, Purdue, and BYU crowds were especially ecstatic.The unseeded Kansas Jayhawks had a notable five-set win against the fourteenth seed Creighton Bluejays. Purdue had an astounding comeback, unexpectedly barreling through their opponents with odds stacked against them. Purdue lost its first two sets to Dayton, by tight scores of 27-25 and 25-19. They gathered in the locker room between sets 2 and 3, and when they returned to the court, there was a sudden fire in their play that Dayton could not contain. Purdue stormed back to win three sets in a row, 25-15, 25-6, and 15-7. BYU, although battling through only four sets to secure a win, had spectators teetering on the edge of their seats in one of the wildest game endings of the whole tournament. In set four, with Utah down 19-21 and BYU serving, BYU served out. Utah, with its vital chance, followed by serving out. BYU stepped up to the line – and served out. Spectators were aghast – what was going on? When the athletes were finally able to get a serve in, Utah tied up the score at twenty-two. The teams continued to trade off points until BYU stood at 24, and Utah at twenty-three. Utah was serve-receiving, which meant that they would get the first chance to score. The deep serve was passed impressively well by Utah’s back row, and the set was elegantly thrown up for the back-row outside to hit – but no one was jumping. On the ground, the hitter had run right into the unaware setter, mid-approach, and the ball was still falling. In a last ditch effort, the same back-row outside lunged with a single arm out to send the ball back over. It was an alarmingly high ball that creeped ever close to BYU’s court line. Right as BYU’s libero looked up and positioned herself to pass the ball, she thought again and stepped back, letting it drop to her left – just outside the court line. The victory was BYU’s – and on a complete hiccup from Utah. Coaches were aghast, club volleyball players at home shook their heads, and Utah especially, was dumbfounded. Games like these remind us of the effects of pressure and anxiety on interpersonal coordination in volleyball.

As round 3 matches came around, the drama grew. Texas displayed amazing resilience in their regional semifinal (match 3) against Washington, losing sets 1 and 2 by scores of 25-19 and 25-20, just to rally back dominantly in three straight sets: 25-22, 25-9 and 15-9. Huge contributions from their blocking game turned the tides swiftly, as Washington struggled to put any balls away past the Longhorn’s wall. Purdue and BYU faced off in a five set match, ending in a dramatic fashion with Purdue shutting down BYU’s slide attempt at siding-out. The block was a textbook seal of the seam. Minnesota and Baylor also battled out a dramatic third match game, with a missed serve from Baylor at 10-10 becoming the last rally with the ball ever starting on their side.

The Quarterfinals had a batch of exciting matchups – the most notable of which was Texas v. Nebraska. “That was definitely my favorite game,” said Chen. Texas had defeated Nebraska in 2021 at the same match in the tournament, making this year an opportunity for redemption. It was an emotional match for the players too, as star middle-blocker, #26 Lauren Stivrins, was able to play at full capacity after recovering from a disc injury in her back – the same injury that she played through the pain of in 2021, that had impeded her from playing at her full potential. Stivrins and her teammates ensured that her recovery was not for nothing, as they defeated Texas easily in four sets. “That was the match where it all just clicked for Nebraska; their defense clicked, their offense was good (they had been struggling with their offense throughout the season) and during the Texas match it all just came together.” Louisville, Pittsburgh, and Wisconsin also advanced past the quarters, leaving behind Purdue, Georgia Tech, and Minnesota.

In the Semifinals, Nebraska defeated Pittsburgh in a tight 4-set match, with headshot hits (0:47), incredible defense, and unbelievable saves (3:19). Louisville took Wisconsin to 5 sets in another stunning game with some brutally long rallies (like this 40-second rally at 2:27!). Many people had put their money on Louisville in that semifinal and beyond, because, as Chen explained, “They were a team that was very hyped up because they went the entire season undefeated. They were highly expected to win the whole thing.”

The Nebraska Cornhuskers play the Pittsburgh Panthers in the NCAA Semifinal match, which they won to advance to the Finals. A right-side hitter on Nebraska rips through the Panthers’ late and unsealed block at the Nationwide Arena in Columbus Ohio, on December 16, 2021. (©Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos)
The Wisconsin Badgers battle the Louisville Cardinals in an intense five-set Semifinal match, which they just eeked out in order to advance to the Finals. Wisconsin outside, Grace Loberg, prepares to tip the ball over Louisville’s block, at the Nationwide Arena in Columbus Ohio, on December 16, 2021. (©Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos)

Dana Retke and Sydney Hilley of Wisconsin put on a show, contributing heavily to Wisconsin’s win. Hype over Retke had been growing substantially by this point, but her performance in the Semifinal caused it to skyrocket. “I was very impressed with the connection between Wisconsin’s setter Sydney Hilley and middle Dana Rettke,” said Lilly Flynn ’23. Fans all across the nation cleared their Saturday night to watch the Final match between Nebraska and Wisconsin, which took place at 7:30pm E.T. on December 18th, 2021.

Powerhouse middle-blocker, Dana Retke #16 of the Wisconsin Badgers, jumps for a block against outside Anna Stevenson #11 of the Louisville Cardinals during the NCAA Semifinals. Retke contributed massively to the Badgers’ win, both as a strong player and competitor, and as a passionate and motivated teammate. She has been recognized by the league for her performance as the first five-time AVCA First Team All American in collegiate history. She will be missed by Badgers’ fans and volleyball fanatics everywhere, as she leaves collegiate volleyball. (©Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos)

Nebraska’s bulldozer-path to the Semifinal had been an unexpected one, with their #10 starting seed, enlisting followers like Chen to root for them in the Championship. “My favorite team for a while has been Nebraska because they are always a powerhouse every year…They didn’t start out at the top, but they managed to make it all the way to the Championship.” he said, complimenting their resilience. “That is so impressive, especially because they have such a young court, with three freshmen starters.” he added, citing freshman libero, Lexi Rodriguez, as his favorite player.

On the other hand, many rooted for Wisconsin, because a win would mean their first Championship ever. “I was rooting for Wisconsin because they were fighting for their first national championship in program history and had come very close in the previous years,” said Lilly Flynn ’23, former starting libero of the Bronx Science Girls’ Varsity Volleyball team and current captain of the Girls’ Varsity Basketball team. “I have always loved Wisconsin ever since Molly Haggerty first joined the team. Watching them play as often as I did led me to absolutely love all of their players, ranging from Lauren Barnes to Sydney Hilley and Dana Rettke,” said Chloe Guerrero ’22, who has always loved watching and staying up to date with collegiate volleyball. As detailed before, the Final match of the tournament had onlookers mesmerized. Increased spectatorship this year – as opposed to limited spectatorship last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic – enhanced and intensified the match, especially with the big fan bases of both schools. “Nebraska is known for having one of the strongest fan bases in the nation, especially for volleyball,” said Lorch. She continued, commenting on the effect of increased spectatorship on the performance and caliber of the match: “That whole gym was just a sea of red – the color of both teams – and I think that gave the players more motivation to represent the people who rely on them, who enjoy watching them; I think that’s why we ended up with such a close game in the end.” 

During the NCAA Final match, #26 Lauren Stivrins of the Nebraska Cornhuskers jumps and reaches for a solo-block against Wisconsin outside, Jade Demps. Stivrins’ performance at the Final and throughout the whole tournament, was a huge display of her strength and perseverance over her back injury. But even with all of Nebraska’s star-studded players, they could not hold out against Wisconsin’s skill and power. (©Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos)

In the final, deciding hour, Wisconsin emerged victorious because of aggression and stamina. Retke – who had ironically considered not playing volleyball this last season – was probably the most spoken name in the Championship, with the biggest point contribution to her team: 19 points, made up of 3 solo blocks, 10 block assists, and 11 kills. Just behind her in points was Anna Smrek, another middle blocker, and a massive 6’ 9” freshman – yes, you read that right – with 7 block assists, 14 kills, and a 0.429 hitting percentage – the highest hitting percentage on the team. Smrek was another one of the most discussed players throughout the tournament, considering her height, age, and performance. Believed to be the tallest player in the whole NCAA league, she will be someone to look out for in the next four years of collegiate volleyball at Wisconsin. 

Six-foot-nine freshman, Anna Smrek #14 of the Wisconsin Badgers tips a quick set in the middle, past the block from the Louisville Cardinals, during the NCAA Semifinals. Smrek’s height and performance have cemented her a clear road to fame already, in just her first year in college. She had the highest hitting percentage of the whole game at 0.429, and is believed to be the tallest player in the whole NCAA league. (©Jamie Schwaberow/ NCAA Photos)

Nebraska’s side had some star-studded players too. Outside hitters Madi Kubick and Kayla Caffey contributed the most points to their team: Kubick scored a whopping 20 points and Kayla scored seventeen. Lauren Stivrins had the highest hitting percentage, at 0.222, with a contribution of 10 kills and 12.5 points overall. Sophomore defensive specialist, Keonilei Akana, and the renowned freshman libero, Lexi Rodriguez – who recently received a first-team All-American title honor – held zero errors, letting nothing drop. Akana posed an astounding 24 digs, and Rodriguez posed thirteen. Their amazing performance supported the defense-driven lens of the tournament: “The defense was very good this year. This year was more defensive and last year was more offensive,” said Chen, comparing this year’s Championship match to that of 2021, between Texas and Kentucky, two powerhouses at the net.

With such amazing athleticism and increasing caliber of play, the explosion in popularity of the NCAA championship should be no surprise. In the past few years, more and more viewers have begun to tune in. According to Lorch, viewership this past season was up 71% from the 2020 spring season, and 119% from the 2019 spring season – considering the COVID-19 pandemic, those are astounding statistics! Evidently, the positive trend has only been on the upward trajectory in recent years, and looks poised to continue. 

“I think what made it popular was how it became so competitive. In some sports, whoever is the number one seed is believed to win the whole thing, but with women’s volleyball, it’s all about how you decide to play on any given day,” said Chen. A lot of volleyball is up to nuance and chance – the trajectory of a float serve, or the strength of the connection between hitter and setter. Upsets happen constantly – you can never know for sure, who will take the trophy. Like a book filled with plot twists, volleyball matches keep audience members constantly on their toes. And with the growing merit and attention devoted to the sport – with new young players who have already reached never before seen heights (literally) and athleticism – the sport of volleyball in general, seems to be becoming more intense. “I am consistently amazed by the speed, skill, and technique that all of these players have on the court, and I think the fact that the sport is becoming a little faster and strategic is resulting in this boost in popularity, which hopefully continues for years to come,” said Lorch.

The young sophomore outside, Jade Demps #15 of the Wisconsin Badgers, tips a ball over Anna Stevenson #11 of the Louisville Cardinals during the Semifinals at the Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, on December 16, 2021. Astounding performers like Demps evoke the reflection of volleyball’s development throughout the years, as well as how it will appear in the years to come. (©Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos)

The increasing eminence opens another question: what is the possibility of a professional volleyball league in the United States? Lorch hopes to one day pioneer that league, in order to honor the many hard-working players she has grown up around in her experience as a slub and school volleyball player. Chen believes it is possible, but that practicalities will slow its progression: “With the trajectory of the sport right now – and it is only on an uphill trajectory – the idea of a pro-league in the U.S. is going to be more feasible than it is right now. I think they are definitely trying to make one.” He cited Athlete’s Unlimited, a recently begun professional league that includes volleyball and has developed by a unique structure, “but I think it will take time before it happens or it becomes a big thing,” he acknowledged. 

Once again, collegiate volleyball has astounded us and left us excited to see what is next. As powerhouse seniors like Lauren Barnes, Dana Retke, and Logan Eggleston leave, eyes will be glued on coaches and the youth. Whom, amongst the coaches, can craft the best team out of their newest players? As far as youth, runner-up colleges like Pittsburgh and Nebraska have high-performing underclassmen who suggest that they will be back for redemption – and that the sport is only going to get better. As for now, we can indulge in our other sports, (some beach volleyball this upcoming spring and summer, maybe?), and volleyball will be back. But as for what we will see when it returns – well, we will just have to wait.

Their smiles say it all. Nebraska’s – and other team’s – pure elation and tenacity in the sport is what draws so many followers year after year. As volleyball gains a greater national following on media, viewership looks poised to grow and the level appears to be only getting better. The future looks hopeful for the sport of volleyball. (©Jamie Schwaberow/NCAA Photos)

“I am consistently amazed by the speed, skill, and technique that all of these players have on the court, and I think the fact that the sport is becoming a little faster and strategic is resulting in this boost in popularity, which hopefully continues for years to come,” said Grace Lorch ’22.